Inspired Physician and Jewel of Islam's 'Golden Age' - Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi

Inspired Physician and Jewel of Islam's 'Golden Age' - Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi
Sitting in his clinic, attending to his patients on one of his busy days in a long-lost era twelve centuries ago, the elderly tabib, the head of the royal hospital in Baghdad, looked intently at the boils on the entire body of two children. The condition was not uncommon, being widespread among the youth of the region in that time. It was so prevalent that it was considered a rite of passage for transition from infancy to adulthood. The boils and rashes came in diverse intensity and appearances – and they were considered symptoms of the same malady. Some left irreversible lifelong pockmarks on the face that would mellow with time but stayed for the rest of life. His assistants, like every physician before him, and indeed he himself till that moment, had given a common name to both the diseases, and applied the same treatment.

However, this was an inspired moment for our physician; one of those moments when experience, observation and intellect come together to raise doubts on old knowledge and create new wisdom. Having seen a number of such patients in his medical practice, he thought to himself that the two types of boils were different in nature, hence two separate diseases. As was his norm, he started taking notes, recording their initial eruption, concentration of boils, oozing of wounds, fever, duration of infection, rate of mortality and whatever else he could observe. He came to the conclusion that his initial inkling had been correct. These were indeed two different infections. That tabib is considered the “original portrayer” of smallpox and to differentiate it from measles.

The tabib compiled his notes as a book in fourteen chapters and called it Kitab fi al-jadari wa al-hasbah (Book on Smallpox and Measles). It remained in wide circulation in the Muslim lands and, later, in the European world. According to the site, the book was published forty times between 1498 and 1866. It was first translated into Latin in 1565 and, according to, twice in the 18th century. It was also translated into a dozen other European languages.

Depiction of al-Razi in a 13th-century manuscript of a work by Gerard of Cremona

This tabib was Abu Muhammad ibn-Zakaria al-Razi, who is considered to have been the greatest physician of the Islamic world. George Sarton, pioneer in the history of sciences as a field of study, has described Razi as "the greatest physician of Islam and of the Medieval Ages.” The site calls him “one of the most scientifically minded physicians of the Middle Ages.”

Razi, anglicized as Rhazes (864/865-925/35 CE), was born in Ray, adjacent to modern-day Tehran. The city was a renowned center of learning during the Islamic Golden Age, producing many scholars in several fields.

Razi commenced his productive life as a musician. He was an accomplished chemist and is credited with work on sulfuric acid and refinement of ethanol for use in medicine. By some accounts, he damaged his eyesight by working on sulfuric acid. It was late in his life, perhaps at the age of about 40, that he got interested in medicine.

As his fame as a doctor spread in the region, Razi came to work in Baghdad. Caliph Al Muktafi appointed him director of the largest hospital in Baghdad. During his tenure, he is reported to have selected a site for a new hospital by hanging fresh meat in several potential sites. He chose the site where meat was the last to rot; indicating a healthier environment for wounds and infections.

Razi took a keen interest in the treatment of children. He published a monograph on pediatrics titled Diseases in Children – the first on the subject. The book has 24 chapters on a wide range of diseases amongst children including tooth eruption, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, eye infections, ear pains, epilepsy, etc. The book has been translated into Latin with titles such as Practica Puerorum and De Curis Puerorum.

He also wrote a treatise on medical ethics, where he opined that “The doctors' aim is to do well, even to our enemies, so much more to our friends, and my profession forbids us to do harm to our kindred, as it is instituted for the benefit and welfare of the human race, and God imposed on physicians the oath not to compose mortiferous remedies.”

One conspicuous limitation of medieval Muslim scientists and scholars was that they remained under the influence of Graeco-Roman traditions, especially that of Aristotle (Aristu) in philosophy, Ptolemy (Batlimus) in astronomy/geography and Galen (Jalinus) in medicine. To his credit, Razi criticised Galen in his book titled Kitāb shukuk ala Jalinus (The Book of Doubts about Galen). He has been described as a freethinker and an agnostic. In fact, he has been criticised for his views by many contemporaries including Al-Biruni for his religious views, Ibn Sina for meddling in metaphysics and by Abu Hatim for his skepticism of revealed religions!
Razi took a keen interest in the treatment of children. He published a monograph on pediatrics titled Diseases in Children – the first on the subject

Razi wrote about 200 books and booklets on medicine, chemistry, pharmacy, philosophy and religion, and one on chess, his favourite pasttime. In The Philosophical Approach, he writes:

In short […] I have written so far around 200 books and articles on different aspects of science, philosophy, theology, and hekmat (wisdom) […] Those who have seen me know, that I did not into excess with eating, drinking or acting the wrong way. As to my interest in science, people know perfectly well and must have witnessed how I have devoted all my life to science since my youth.”

Al-Razi in the Pavilion of Scholars, Vienna, Austria

The titles of his books indicate the breadth of his scholarly interests. His books on medicine include The Classification of Diseases, Royal Medicine, For One Without a Doctor, The Book of Simple Medicine, The Book of Disasters, Food and its Harmfulness, The Book of Formation of Small Stones (i.e. stones in the kidney and bladder), The Book of Pains in the Intestines, The Book of Tooth Aches, About the Liver, About the Heart, About the Menstrual Cycle and many more.

Razi has long been honoured as one of the greatest physicians of the Islamic world. One of his most important works is the 23-volume "Comprehensive book of medicine." Although Razi claimed that the work was still incomplete, it was so massive that a two-volume Latin edition printed in 1486 weighed over 20 pounds. Claude Phipps writes in No Wonder You Wonder!: Great Inventions and Scientific Mysteries that this book “contains the foundation of gynecology, obstetrics and ophthalmic surgery.”

Razi has been celebrated generally in the scholarly circles but especially so in the Muslim world. In 2009, Iran presented a monument to the UN, installed outside their offices in Vienna. It consists of a four-arched structure called Char-Tagi in the Persian language. Built in the Achaemenid style, it depicts four scholars of the so-called Islamic Golden Age. The monument is called Scholars' Pavilion and is meant to show the continuity of Persian greatness in sciences from ancient times to this day. Under one of the arches sits the statue of Razi, holding a chemist’s flask, acknowledged as one of the greatest sons produced by that illustrious land.

His birthday is celebrated in Iran annually on the 27th of August as the National Iranian Pharmacists’ Day because of his great contributions to the field of chemistry and pharmacy. In addition, the Razi (Rhazes) Biomedical Research Festival is held in Iran annually in January since 1995.

Razi shall remain the pride of Muslim scholarship for centuries to come.


Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: